In our In Case You Missed It series (also known as ICYMI), student interns from the Office of Sustainability offer reflective reports on sustainability-related events and lectures at UW–Madison. The following entry is by Hannah Kasun.
Dan Egan: 2018 Go Big Read Lecture
Journalist Dan Egan has worked for over a decade to cover the Great Lakes. Much of that work has made it into his acclaimed book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” which was chosen as UW-Madison’s 2018-2019 Go Big Read by Chancellor Rebecca Blank. As part of Go Big Read, the book was given to all freshmen and new students, and will be incorporated into a variety of UW-Madison classes over the course of the year.
Students and community members alike gathered on October 16, 2018 to hear Egan speak, filling Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall to near capacity. Egan’s talk was preceded by an acknowledgement of Ho Chunk land, and an introduction from Chancellor Blank.
Egan began his talk by discussing his impressions of water systems growing up, notably his childhood experiences of Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, as well as his early-career journalism job writing about the decimated salmon run of Redfish Lake in Iowa. The year he covered the run, only one fish (nicknamed “Lonesome Larry”) made it from the ocean to the lake, due to the extensive network of dams on the river. Egan said that “watching a species disappear” in this way impacted him significantly.
Narrowing his focus to the Great Lakes, Egan described the geological and ecological aspects of the lakes that existed prior to human interference. He touched briefly on their formation (carved by glaciers some 4,000 years ago), their interaction (somewhat like a massive river flowing from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean), and their impressive scale.
Egan divided the human impact on the Great Lakes into two different categories. He first discussed the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, which he called “The Front Door” of the Great Lakes. Although opening this “door” never achieved the desired impact on international trade, Egan argued, it did mark the beginning of a continuous onslaught of invasive species that wreaked havoc on the vulnerable Great Lakes ecosystem. Many of these invasives—including the infamous zebra mussel—arrived in the lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going vessels.
Egan then discussed the Chicago Canal, which he calls “The Back Door” of the Great Lakes. This 28-mile long feat of engineering reverses the flow of a portion of the Chicago River, allowing Chicago to send its sewage downriver (instead of sending it into Lake Michigan, where the city’s drinking water came from). This construction, as Egan points out, connects the Great Lakes watershed to the massive Mississippi watershed, and allows both water and invasive species to flow between the two. The most “charismatic” of these invasives is the jumping silver carp, which are currently kept out of the Great Lakes by an electric fish barrier which could fail at any moment.
A strong suit of Egan’s talk was his calculated balance between realism and optimism. Though he outlined the many tragedies that have befallen the lakes, he also called attention to factors that should give us hope. For example, he highlighted the following scenario: native lake trout of the lakes have learned to eat a small invasive fish called the goby, which in turn eat zebra mussels, offering hope that lake ecosystems will self-correct if we work diligently to prevent further harm.
Egan concluded his talk by requesting vigilance from the members of the audience—specifically asking that they watch out for attempts to roll back Clean Water Act protections for the Great Lakes—and calling for the cultivation of an ethic of stewardship in the minds of today’s children. Archived video of the evening can be viewed here.
Tim Palmer: Jordhal Public Lands Lecture
On October 17, author and photographer Tim Palmer came to the UW-Madison campus to give the Nelson Institute annual Jordahl Public Lands Lecture. The topic, which was the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, had significant ties to the lecture series and the state of Wisconsin: Harold “Bud” Jordahl worked with U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to write the act, and the Upper St. Croix and Namekagon rivers in Wisconsin were two of the first rivers to be protected.
Throughout his lecture, Palmer showcased photos of rivers that he has taken over the years. He spent much of his time narrating the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers act and the designation of many different rivers. The act was founded, he said, on two “bits of knowledge”: that rivers are valuable, and that they are threatened. While the lecture was largely celebratory—highlighting, for instance, that there are now 300 rivers designated under the act as opposed to eight 50 years ago – Palmer also called attention to the precarious nature of conservation. He expressed his hopes for bipartisan conservation efforts, and nodded to the continuous efforts of conservationists via his comment, “Protection of anything requires constant vigilance by the people who care.”
Palmer concluded his talk with a series of reasons why we need rivers, including their ecosystem services, recreational activities, and spiritual opportunities. Archived video of the talk can be viewed here.